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Flick Clique: July 31 – August 6

At Long Last Love (1975). Something of a notorious flop that, once watched (as I did on Netflix streaming), actually seems not nearly as awful as its reputation would have you believe. Peter Bogdonavich’s tribute to ’30s movie musicals uses a wall-to-wall backdrop of Cole Porter songs to illustrate the fluffy tale of a millionaire (Burt Reynolds) who falls for a flamboyant singer (Madeline Kahn) while the woman’s high school friend (Cybill Shepherd) latches onto an Italian gambler (the deservedly obscure Duilio Del Prete). The four cross paths and make wry observations about relationships while the servant class (Eileen Brennan and John Hillerman) spar and make love. First off, this is a very strange film that is almost laudable with the risks it took. Having the actors sing live on camera, and not lip-synched to a pre-recorded track, brings a brisk spontaneity to the film. If the film was better cast, it might have even become a hit. Unfortunately, Reynolds and Shepherd are clumsy and off-key, Del Prete is an accented bore, and the normally fun Kahn is rather overbearing and shrill. As if to make up for the lack of decent pipes, the cast goes overboard and approach the material in a consciously “goofy” manner that makes one wonder what they were sniffing between takes. I did like the songs, however, and the stylized white-on-white production design is really something to see — even if it’s more ’70s-retro than authentically ’30s. The fabboo Kahn also gets a deliriously silly number in which she tramps around with chorus men in caveman dress. Overall, it’s silly and forgettable but strangely charming — as far as Cole Porter tributes go, it works much better than the thoroughly misconceived and tacky De-Lovely (2004). I still prefer Cary Grant as Cole in Night and Day (which has a brief bit with my fave Joyce Compton!), by the by.
The Happy Ending (1969). Overtly glum (dig that poster) but satisfying drama stars Jean Simmons as a bored, well-to-do Denver housewife who finds herself questioning her own life as she marks the 15th anniversary of her marriage to ad exec John Forsythe. She drifts through days at the beauty parlor, chatting with a lovely and similarly bored friend (gorgeous Tina Louise), confiding her secret nips of vodka with her housekeeper (Nanette Fabray), observing with sadness that her teen daughter is growing up and finding the independence that she craves. One of those under-the-radar films that deserves a second look (it’s on Netflix streaming), highlighted by Simmons’ nuanced work. Oddly enough, the Simmons character is a self-absorbed jerk who never has any redemptive moment or epiphany — she’s an alcoholic mess at the start and only winds up somewhat more well-adjusted in the (semi-happy) end. It works, however, if only for capturing the blasé zeitgeist of the ’60s so well (if ever there was a film counterpart to Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” this is it). Of special note is Conrad Hall’s lovely widescreen cinematography. There’s also some excellent work from Shirley Jones as an old friend of Simmons who traded her own security to become the mistress of a married man (Lloyd Bridges), and Bobby Darin as an aging gigolo. This is a very Mad Men-esque film, but unlike that drama this one is genuinely from the ’60s and captures that shell-shocked feel perfectly.
Poison (1991). Streaming movie #3 was this inventive indie flick from the early ’90s, a queer cinema landmark that introduced most to the work of director Todd Haynes (HBO’s Mildred Pierce). Poison interweaves three different stories, all with a gay undercurrent and supposedly based on the writings of Jean Genet. One segment follows a prisoner who meets a fellow inmate that he knew several years earlier, illustrated with flashbacks that have the florid, stage-bound style of photographers Pierre Et Gilles. The second story is the TV news-like recounting of a 7 year-old boy who killed his own father, then disappeared — leaving the people in his bland suburban neighborhood dumbfounded. The third segment is a horror story of a scientist who contracts a disfiguring disease then goes on a rampage raping and terrorizing people (shades of AIDS), done in the style of a campy low-budget ’50s movie. The film is very much of its time, but I enjoyed it. It certainly has a scraped-together indie feel and the acting is by and large forgettable, but Haynes does creative wonders with the material. I also liked the way the stories were intercut. At the time, this film was attacked for receiving an NEA grant. One watches it today and wonders what the fuss was about — the “controversial” stuff seems pretty benign. Once again, conservatives have their panties in a bunch over very little. I’d recommend it, however, as an intriguing look at what ’90s indie cinema was like.
Source Code (2011). One of those “check your brain at the door and have fun” movies. This was another of Christopher’s recent Hollywood sci-fi rentals; unlike The Adjustment Bureau and Unknown, Source Code has a nifty concept to hang onto and the slick production values work well enough in its favor to make it work (up to a point). Glowering Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who is unaccountably thrown into a situation where he is on Chicago-bound train minutes before a terroritst bomb goes off. Inhabiting the body of a stranger and seated opposite a woman (Michelle Monaghan) he doesn’t know, he is doomed to repeat the final minutes of the train until the bomber is found. Eventually we find that the train setup is an elaborate matrix built from one of the victims’ memories (don’t ask); Gyllenhaal is the conduit through which the controllers of the project (played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) must quickly work to capture the bomber before any other incidents occur. Absurd, I know, but the film is surprisingly fun once the annoyance of the Groundhog Day-with-terrorist conceit gets out of the way. The ending is very wonky, but I’ll let it slide.
Z (1969). In a politically heated European city, a visiting professor (Yves Montand) is attacked just after delivering a pacifist speech. In the brouhaha leading to and including the man’s death, a state investigator (Jean-Louis Trintignant) must filter through all of the suspicious parties to find the true culprit. Director Costa-Garvas’ impressively cast, multilayered drama is based on a real incident that happened in 1963 Greece. Having some knowledge on student movements and political uprisings of the era might help, but on its own the film is a satisfying ride with lots of vivid characters coming in and out of the proceedings. Costa-Garvas directs in a straightforward, documentary style and manages to keep a viewer’s interest despite having no true protagonist (I guess Tintignant’s character might count, but he doesn’t show up until a third of the way in). The style and subject matter might seem dated at first, but the essential message that we mustn’t be complacent with our political leadership rings as true as ever.

2 Thoughts on “Flick Clique: July 31 – August 6

  1. Cristiane on August 8, 2011 at 6:31 pm said:

    It’s too bad that At Long Last Love is so horribly cast – it’s a pretty good concept. One of its problems is that it doesn’t so much finish as stop.
    And I remember seeing Z in the theatre – there are still sequences that I remember vividly.

  2. Another problem with At Long Last Love is that it doesn’t vary much in tone between the banter and the singing.

    I also saw Captain America: The First Avenger over the past week, but forgot to post it here. I enjoyed it, for what it’s worth.

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